Up Without Arms

While some may see the region-wide protest wave currently sweeping the Middle East as a pale imitation of 2011, the uprisings of 2019 are in many ways more impressive. They have lasted longer, demonstrated tremendous resilience, and made significant achievements. But, outside of Sudan’s tenuous success, these new protest movements are no closer to finding ways to force fundamental systemic change.

This year’s protest wave is driven by the same grievances as those of 2011: failed governance, disastrous economies, corruption, elite impunity, security service abuses, and generational impatience with the pace of change. Protestors have learned critical lessons both from their own past failures and from the experiences of other countries.

The 2011 Arab uprisings, for all their power and glory, generally didn’t last very long. Egypt’s archetypical uprising lasted only eighteen days, followed by episodic but far less effective demonstrations. Tunisia’s lasted about a month. Bahrain’s were crushed within a couple of months, while Libya’s quickly degenerated into war. The situations in Yemen and Syria in 2011 were the closest analogues to what is taking place today. In both countries nonviolent movements sustained themselves for over a year in the face of extreme state violence before being overtaken by civil war.

The 2019 protests have lasted for far longer than their predecessors. Sudan’s protests continued for half a year and have resurged at critical points. Algeria’s are still going after nearly nine months, resisting all efforts at demobilization. Both Iraq and Lebanon have sustained demonstrations in defiance of violence, sectarian divisions, and the hopelessness of challenging the impunity of elites sustained by sectarian systems. Exceptional repression snuffed out Iran’s largest and most intense protests in decades, but few believe that this reaction has restored normality.

The resilience of these protest movements has been nothing short of remarkable. Sudan’s protest movement managed to recover and reconstitute itself after June’s violent assault on a Khartoum sit-in, mass arrests of its organizers and members, and an internet shutdown. Algeria’s protests have continued despite changes of government, an election that was controversial, and escalating arrests. Iraqi protests have taken over public spaces across the south and into Baghdad. Lebanon’s have defied economic catastrophe and sporadic violence.

These protest movements, despite their apparent lack of leadership or organizational structure, have maintained impressive message discipline. They have insisted on systemic change while rejecting bids by regimes to end the protests through promises of elections, cosmetic reforms, or the mere discarding of a leader—for instance presidents ‘Omar al-Bashir in Sudan or ‘Abdelaziz Bouteflika in Algeria. They have shown extraordinary commitment to remaining peaceful in the face of regime crackdowns.

Unfortunately, the autocrats have learned as well. They understand that there will be little meaningful international response to their use of violence. They have become masters at social media manipulation—from surveillance to the unleashing of bot armies to divide challengers and reshape narratives to simply shutting down the internet as needed. Apparently opposed political coalitions—whether Iranian moderates and hardliners, Hezbollah and those loyal to Prime Minister Sa‘d al-Hariri in Lebanon, or politicians in Iraq’s Green Zone—have come together to defend elite privilege and the status quo and prevent the emergence of plausible political alternatives.

Regimes have learned they have good reason to believe that they can wait out mass protests. They have little to fear by way of international pressure, and know that militarization or escalation of the protests would play into their hands. And they know that drawing things out helps them to use their institutional power to chip away at the cohesion and enthusiasm of their popular rivals, while publics get tired of protestors, craving a return to normality. While regimes using violence indiscriminately risk fueling outrage and bringing even more people into the streets, they are skilled at slow attrition through arrests, intimidation, news blackouts, and targeted killings.

Algeria’s regime has clearly banked on its ability to sustain a status quo of regular demonstrations with steadily mounting repression and a façade of democratic elections. Iran’s regime cracked down hard, and decisively, at great human cost. The indifference of Iraqi and Lebanese elites to the urgency of the situation that exists in each country seems equally clear. However, it is less justified as the risks of economic collapse rise in Lebanon, or as mounting violence threatens to tip over into civil war in Iraq.

Nobody has a realistic notion of how to reform the corrupt, entrenched sectarian systems in Lebanon and Iraq, or how to push the military from its position at the core of the Algerian state. Protestors have shown few signs of demobilizing or of being willing to accept compromise solutions. But it is difficult to sustain hope indefinitely. In Algeria and Iraq there are worrying signs of fragmenting movements and violent eruptions—as well as ample opportunities for provocateurs keen to push the political moment down such paths.

This year’s protestors have learned that taking up arms is likely the kiss of death for their movements. Violence invites regime retaliation, loses international support, and alienates mainstream citizens who are otherwise sympathetic to the demands of protestors. Perhaps that is due to the recent memory of extreme violence. Or perhaps it is due to the internalization of the lessons from Syria and Libya. Either way, to this point the commitment to nonviolence has remained remarkably consistent and disciplined considering the amorphous nature of the protest movements.

As the stalemates grind on, however, the incentive for regimes to use violence grows, whether to clear the streets or to goad the protestors toward violent reactions that would justify a sweeping crackdown. The effects of such violence would be unpredictable. The brutality of the Sudanese regime’s clearing of a sit-in backfired, turning global public opinion against it while infuriating many “on the fence” citizens. Iran’s massive, fierce crackdown combined with an internet shutdown appears to have been more successful in the short term, but did nothing to address underlying grievances. Violence between protestors and militias has increasingly disrupted Iraqi demonstrations, with some troubling signs of opposition groups fighting back in dangerous ways.

What will this mean in the end? It is critical to not conflate success and regime change. Even where demonstrations have proven unable to topple regimes, they have clearly transformed social and political life in fundamental and profound ways. The cultural revivals and exhilarating public laboratories of new political ideas are as fertile in Beirut and Baghdad as they were in Khartoum and Algiers. What has taken place in 2019 should be seen not as a second wave of turbulence after the failure of 2011. It should be seen as just one more episode in a long political struggle with many more episodes to go.

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